The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday called for the faster replacement of rail cars that carry flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol — one of four urgent recommendations stemming from an investigation of recent derailments.
The NTSB is seeking an “aggressive schedule” to replace or retrofit the current fleet of rail tank cars, which it says rupture too easily in derailments and allow flammable liquids in undamaged cars to explode if there is a fire.
“We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. “Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our most wanted list of safety improvements.” The fleet of oil and ethanol tank cars is projected to top 115,000 by the end of 2015.
Canadian and U.S. officials have wrestled with making oil train deliveries safer ever since the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec, in which 47 people were killed.
Barack Obama’s administration is finalizing a rule expected by May to require that future oil train tankers be toughened with added steel and have advanced braking systems to prevent derailments from turning into similar disasters.
The industry in 2011 voluntarily adopted rules requiring sturdier tank cars for hauling flammable liquids such as oil and ethanol. But cars built to the new standard split open in at least four accidents during the past year, including oil trains that derailed and burned in West Virginia in February and Illinois last month.
After reviewing those accidents, the NTSB concluded that the industry’s enhanced rail car, the CPC-1232, is not satisfactory when exposed to a pool fire.
“The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements. Otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk,” the NTSB said in its recommendations to acting Administrator Timothy Butters of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The NTSB also called for all tank cars that carry crude oil and ethanol to be equipped with “appropriately sized pressure relief devices” that release pressure if there is a nearby fire.
Another option cited by the safety board would equip flammable-liquid cars with ceramic “thermal blankets” that surround the tank and shield it from intense heat should a nearby car catch fire. Those blankets already are used for transporting liquefied petroleum gas.
If the Transportation Department decides it would take too long to retrofit the existing fleet with new protective features, it should consider significant speed restrictions on trains as an interim measure, the NTSB said in its recommendations.
The volume of flammable liquids transported by rail has risen dramatically over the past decade, driven largely by shale oil from North Dakota and Montana — which may be more flammable than other types of oil.
Many are owned not by railroads but by the oil and ethanol producers that ship their product via rail. That has created friction between the energy and rail industries as each looks to the other to foot the bill for safety improvements.
The Association of American Railroads said in response to the NTSB announcement that it supports aggressive steps to retrofit or replace the tank car fleet. “Every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard,” the group said in a statement.